By Attorney Edward A. Jesson
The North Carolina Constitution, and North Carolina statutes, give contractors the right to file mechanic’s liens if they are owed money for completing “improvements” on real property. Improvements are defined in a statute, but generally speaking, anyone who performs work on real property, be it renovations, grading, architectural work, or otherwise, can file a mechanic’s lien in North Carolina.
The purpose of filing a mechanic’s lien is to have the debt owed to the contractor paid by the responsible party (often, the owner of the real property). A contractor has 120 days from the “date of last furnishing” to file the lien. The “date of last furnishing” is simply the last date that the contractor (or architect, etc.) performed work on the real property. It is best to be conservative with this date as courts have ruled in the past that punch list items performed after the date of last furnishing do not push that date out further. The mechanic’s lien has to be filed with the clerk of court in the county where the real property is located and formally served (like a lawsuit) on the property owner and any other contractors that may be affected by the lien. It is important that the lien be properly drafted when it is filed—if there is a mistake and the 120-day deadline passes, you cannot simply amend a lien. Instead, the lien must be released and a new lien filed in its place.
The contractor then has 180 days (again, from the date of last furnishing) to “enforce” the lien. To enforce a lien, you file a lawsuit and ask the court declare that your lien is valid and confirm the debt amount. Oftentimes, a lien enforcement lawsuit will also include other claims, such as a claim for breach of contract. If the contractor is successful, he/she can then request that the court order what is essentially a foreclosure sale on the property to satisfy the debt. If there are other liens attached to the property, like a mortgage, the contractor will have to get in line. The existence of other liens is something to take into account when evaluating the benefits of moving forwards with a lien enforcement action.
In reality, most lien situations are resolved prior to a foreclosure sale, because (1) property owners don’t want their property sold and (2) attorney’s fees may be awarded in the lien enforcement lawsuit. North Carolina’s mechanic’s lien statute contains an attorney’s fee provision that awards attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. That is very rarely the case in the United States (normally, parties are responsible for their respective fees, regardless of whether they win or lose), so it can be a powerful negotiating tool.
If a contractor loses, they may have to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees, which can often total more than the debt owed itself, so it is important to seek the advice of a construction lawyer when evaluating whether you should file a mechanic’s lien.
There are many other factors to consider when getting ready to file a lien, and there are other types of liens that can be filed by subcontractors and others involved in the construction process. Should you have an issue with collecting money from a client or have had a lien filed against your property, please give us a call to help with your issue.
By Attorney Edward Jesson
In 2012, North Carolina’s mechanic’s lien statutes were overhauled. One of the biggest changes was the requirement for a lien agent to be appointed on certain jobs. We still frequently receive questions about lien agent requirements and what the consequences of a contractor’s failure to file a “Notice to Lien Agent” actually are.
Lien agents are only required on projects involving improvements to real property valued at over $30,000.00, except that a lien agent does not have to be designated for projects where improvements are being done to an existing single-family residential building, occupied by the owner, even if those improvements are valued over $30,000.00. That exception also applies if the contract is for the construction of accessory buildings where “the use of which is incidental to that residence.” Generally speaking, the appointment of lien agents is more prevalent in commercial construction projects but it is also sometimes necessary to designate a lien agent for residential projects. While designating a lien agent is generally the owner’s responsibility, there is a limited ability for “custom contractors” (as defined by the statute) to designate the lien agent on residential new construction projects as, presumably, custom contractors should be more familiar with these laws than the average home owner.
In order to fully protect its rights as a contractor to pursue a claim of lien on real property, a contractor must file a Notice to Lien Agent within 15 days after it first “furnishes labor or materials to the project.” While failing to file a notice to lien agent within 15 days is not necessarily fatal to any future lien claims, it may limit the contractor’s lien rights should it be necessary to file a lien at a later date. If a contractor fails to file a notice to lien agent and, prior to filing the notice or to filing a claim of lien on real property, the property is sold or otherwise encumbered, the contractor seeking to enforce its lien rights at a later date may have issues doing so. On the other hand, if a contractor fails to file a notice to lien agent and it then becomes necessary to file a lien, the contractor will likely be able to do so if the property has not been sold or otherwise encumbered.
It is important to note that the lien agent does not take place of the owner or upper tier contractor for purposes of service. Any claims of lien on real property or claims of lien on funds should be filed (where necessary) and served on the owner and any necessary contractors and/or suppliers.
It is best practice, in projects where lien agents are appointed, to file the notice of lien agent as soon as possible—even prior to beginning work. There is a portal to provide Notices to Lien Agents on LiensNC.com, but if you have any further questions, the attorneys at Jesson & Rains would be happy to help.
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